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2016 Fall Convocation President’s Welcome

September 7, 2016

World Changing (Redux)

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to this Convocation, the 103rd ceremonial “calling together” of our campus community to mark the start of an academic year. Traditionally, Convocation features a chance to hear several warm-up acts – speakers like me whose goal is to work you up into a frenzy of anticipation for the headliner – usually a senior faculty member conveying a personal story with elements selected to inspire or resonate with the assembled multitude. Often the title of the headliner’s talk is mysterious, hinting at, but not definitively identifying, the content. Such is the case today, with President Emerita Hill’s talk on “Athena, Economics and Feathers.” How a Greek goddess, the dismal science, and the colorful plumage of our avian friends connect, I won’t speculate. But stay alert, and these mysteries shall be unraveled. After today’s convocation, please proceed to the Atrium of the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences for food, festivity, and the chance to say a fond farewell to Cappy as she leaves to take up new responsibilities.

My remarks today will gather loosely around the idea of “world changing.” “Changing the world” happens to be the theme of choice for many college admissions essays, but it was also the impetus for the Vassar 150 “World Changing” fund-raising campaign, led by President Hill and successfully completed in 2013 with well over $400M raised for the College’s priorities. Campaign contributions funded a significant share of the cost of the Bridge building and the Integrated Science Commons, they contributed to sustaining our financial aid policies through the Great Recession that began in 2008, and they enhanced the College in many other ways.

One aspect of being a world-changer is stepping up when opportunity presents itself. So here I want to put on my cap as a pre-major advisor and say to students “Step up and make sure all additions to your class schedule are processed by Monday NEXT WEEK.” Yes, that is the course add deadline. New students, I know that you have heard this from the Dean of Freshmen and from your pre-major advisor… but it bears repeating. You have only a few more days to put the finishing touches on your class schedules. That is under your control. It’s your responsibility.

And one other thing: while you are not totally in control of who will be the U.S. president for the next four years, you are partly responsible. Vote in November if you’re eligible. If you are ineligible, encourage friends to vote. Help shape the world by taking responsibility and stepping up.

But being a world changer requires more than stepping up. It also requires taking risks, which you can practice in student orgs as well as in the classroom. Learn to juggle with the Barefoot Monkeys, to “snatch the snitch” with Vassar Quidditch, to foster community and social justice through the Student Class Issues Alliance or Transmission or Poder Latinx or Hunger Action or the Black Students Union or the Vassar Haiti Project. At Vassar, you can develop a vision for something you are passionate about and work with allies to create your own org to tackle some problem or pursue some dream. Surely the 175 existing orgs and pre-orgs don’t exhaust ALL possible needs on our campus or in the world.

Later this month you could meet a risk-taker and world-changer who will be visiting campus. Margee Ensign is President of the American University of Nigeria and will be here on September 19th. Her actions have been world-changing for dozens of the Chibok schoolgirls of northeastern Nigeria taken captive from their school by the extremist organization Boko Haram, which literally in Hausa and Arabic means “Western education is forbidden.” Taking her University van and a small security detail deep into Boko Haram territory, she has brought teenaged escapees from captivity back to the relative safety of her university campus in the state capital Yola, providing food, shelter, trauma counseling, and tutoring to prepare them to enroll as full, regular students tuition-free at her university. These girls aspire to be physicians, public health professionals, nurses, or teachers and have themselves taken great risks to change their worlds: to escape from their captors, leave their families, and pursue an educational dream. Ensign’s ambition is to find and educate all the Chibok schoolgirls who have been taken. There are 276 of them. It is a big and risky job.

Another element of “world-changing” is connecting your skills and knowledge to a need you see in the world. Last semester, Professor Maria Hoehn in the History Department offered a course called “The 21st Century Global Refugee Crisis” in response to the contemporary crises that have led to the worldwide displacement of 60 million people. For six weeks, the 143 students and 30 or so Poughkeepsie community members in this half-unit course studied ways that Vassar has responded to refugee crises in the past and envisioned how Vassar and our community could respond today. Interacting via video link-up with officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross on the front lines of the European refugee crisis and with local agencies involved in meeting the needs of displaced people, they learned what it takes to resettle refugee families. Among those things is the availability of a refugee resettlement center within 50 miles of the resettlement relocation – something the Mid-Hudson Valley did not have before students turned their attention to this problem. Through the advocacy of students from the course working with local faith communities and non-profits, we now anticipate imminent permission from the State Department for establishment of a refugee resettlement center in Poughkeepsie. This opens the mid-Hudson Valley to refugee resettlement, and already a local church, the Vassar Temple, and the Wappinger’s Mosque have signed on to sponsor refugee families. Other congregations wish to be part of this, and the student network is expanding to include most of the colleges and universities in the mid-Hudson Valley. Vassar students from last year’s course have been at the center of all of these developments, harnessing their knowledge and energy to make a difference under the banner of Vassar College Refugee Solidarity. Students, you can be world changers right here in Poughkeepsie.

In participating in the refugee initiative, students in VC Refugee Solidarity have needed to work collaboratively with people and organizations both within and outside of Vassar in order to make progress on their goals.  This highlights the concept of shared leadership, the idea that by uniting forces the allies gain far more than a doubling of their individual efforts.  This concept is more important today than ever, when most of the important problems that call for our attention are complex, multifaceted ones that require more skills than any one person or group can provide.

Pulling together what I have said – that “world-changing” requires stepping up, taking risks, connecting knowledge to need, and working collaboratively – I’d like to tell you about another visitor to campus later this semester – one operating on a very different problem from Margee Ensign, but a problem whose solution also required risk-taking, skill, collaboration, and above all stepping up – WAY UP – 1350 feet in the air. This visitor is Philippe Petit, famed French high-wire artist, who will be here for a talk and, we can hope, a wire-walk on October 6th.  Parents or grandparents of today’s students will remember Petit as the one who took an early morning walk on a high wire illegally strung between the 110-story Twin Towers of the World Trade Center before the buildings had officially opened in 1974. With a small band of collaborators recruited to his cause, he figured out a way to surreptitiously string a 200-foot-long, 450-pound steel cable between the not-yet-open buildings over a single night, and then, the next morning, after no sleep, treated a gradually-gathering crowd far below to the most daring high-wire performance ever, carrying a custom-made 26-foot long, 55-pound balancing pole while making 8 passes back and forth over a 45-minute period before being hauled in by the police. If the various bios, documentaries, and the 2015 movie The Walk are to be believed, the buildings called to Petit to be bridged through his wire-walking art; connecting them was a need that only he saw, let along conceived as possible, and that he was uniquely equipped to undertake. Mr. Petit stepped up, took risk, brought all his knowledge and skill to the task, and collaborated effectively to accomplish something beyond what anyone else had conceived, let alone thought possible. And one other thing – Petit accepted responsibilityfor his various illegal activities in carrying out his daring coup. The district attorney dropped all formal charges in exchange for him doing a free aerial performance in Central Park for New York school children, crossing a wire strung over Turtle Pond at a much lower altitude! I look forward to hearing from Petit on October 6th and learning more from him about what it takes to be a world-changer. At the very least, I hope he inspires you students who attend to start a new Vassar pre-org, maybe called VC High-Wire?

Not too long ago, but long enough that today’s students won’t remember it, Vassar celebrated its sesquicentennial, or 150thanniversary.  At the same time the college was in the midst of the Vassar 150 World Changing comprehensive campaign. In explaining the choice of this title, the development office website says: “this name resonates on so many levels: Vassar changed the world when it first admitted women in 1861; Vassar changes the world of each student who attends; Vassar graduates leave the college to go out and change the world.” Much needs changing in our world: racial discrimination and violence, ethnic hatred, income inequality, anti-immigrant actions or threats, Zika infections and other dangers to public health, random-seeming shootings and terrorism, global warming. You’re the people who can do it… the best and brightest we have to offer. Take what you learn and practice here at Vassar, and apply it wisely and well. Commit your whole heart to this task. The world needs you.